June 28, 2015

Book Review: IPA by Mitch Steele

I know I am late to the party reviewing this book. It was published in 2012 and there are a lot of reviews out there. I picked this up about six months ago and meant to write the review earlier but just didn't get around to it before. Actually I thought about passing on writing a review of IPA because there are so many reviews online but in my opinion IPA has been unfairly criticized so this review is really more of a defense of the book than piling on to what you have likely already read about IPA.

IPA, or fully titled Brewing Techniques, Recipes and the Evolution of India Pale Ale, by Mitch Steele of Stone Brewing is unsurprisingly a book about IPA. When Brewers Publications put out its style books in the 1990s there was no IPA book. IPA was instead lumped in with pale ales in Pale Ale. In the 2000s Brewers Publications released additional style books including Brew Like a Monk, Wild Brews, Farmhouse Ales and Brewing with Wheat that were expanded and designed with a different feel. IPA is not officially part of the 1990s style series but reads like a supersized version of those books. If you have read any of the 1990s style books then you know they were roughly evenly split between history and brewing practices. IPA follows suit in the same pattern although it is at least twice the length of those older style books.

The first two-thirds of the book traces the history of IPA from its English roots into modern craft variants. Steele openly draws heavily from the work of Ron Pattinson (of the blog Shut Up about Barclay Perkins) and other members of the Durden Park Beer Circle. Significant space is allocated to displacing the oft-repeated myth about IPA and its design to survive the boat ride to India. However, within the 185 pages of IPA history there is plenty of knowledge to gleam about brewing practices of the past in England, Scotland and here in the United States. This section ends at its natural destination in the present discussing modern IPA variants.

The remaining 100+ pages discusses IPA brewing techniques and a lengthy section of model IPA recipes provided by stalwarts of IPA on both sides of the Atlantic. There are no shocking techniques discussed for brewing IPAs but it is more technical than most of the 1990s style books which discussed brewing at a beginner's level. The recipes represent a nice span of English and American IPAs both new and old. Personally I would have liked to have seen more technical details from the breweries about brewing IPAs but these books are written for broad appeal and Steele strikes an acceptable median here. Overall IPA is far superior in depth and usefulness in comparison to those 1990s style books and holds its own with the quality of the other post-90s style books released by Brewers Publications.

Criticism of IPA typically revolves around three points:

1. There is too much space given to the history of IPA;
2. The recipes do not include specific volumes;
3. The book lacks discussion about the newest, most hyped IPAs and the hops giving rise to those beers.

Each of these points are completely accurate but the reason why they are treated as criticism are not meaningful. Certainly it would be great to see this book, like every other Brewers Publication book, turned into a 1000 page tome with explicit detail so that no other book would have to be published on the subject for another twenty years. Of course, that book would be a challenge to publish and certainly would not be a $25 book. Accepting that it is a 300 page $25 book, let's deconstruct these criticisms.

The length spent on history is certainly voluminous but that is not necessarily a bad thing. The incorrect story about IPA's beginnings continues to be treated as unqualified truth and the only way that myth will die is with a resource such as this book presenting a more authoritative and substantiated explanation. No book could rightfully be treated as the definitive guide to IPA without a strong refutation of that myth. Moreover, there is actually a lot of worthwhile brewing knowledge packed into the history, especially for those of us interested in brewing historical styles or adopting historical brewing practices into our own brewing. I am sure for people who were just looking at how to brew an imperial IPA with simcoe, citra, amarillo, centennial and mosaic, this section was a complete waste.

It is true that the recipes included in the book do not have specific grain or hop volumes and that requires a little work to fashion a clone recipe but there is a good reason for this. These recipes were designed on commercial systems that develop beer differently than our homebrewing systems. It would be impossible for Steele to sort out recipes accurately designed for all readers. IPA is a resource for those brewing seven gallons and seven barrels. Quite frankly, it is not that difficult to figure out how to adapt the information into complete recipes. Additionally, some of the breweries who offered recipes are less candid than others about recipes so the amount of information provided may be all Steele had available to publish.

And sure, IPA does not tell you how to go to your local shop and buy the ingredients to clone Heady Topper or whatever the IPA of the month happens to be. If the book had focused on the long list of IPAs loaded up with the same group of hops used in all the other hyped IPAs then it would be worthless in a couple years when everybody dumps their Citra in favor of whatever new hop becomes all the rage. There are enough recipes available here that any brewer can take the most hyped hops of the year and assemble a great recipe.

I've seen some of this criticism levied on the low volume of information about brewing IPAs as though the secret processes that make world class IPA were left out. I do not think that is accurate. IPA as a style receives so much focus and new IPAs focus so much on squeezing out every whiff of hop character that the small details really make the difference between a great IPA and the top of the market such that every component of the brewing process has to be at the top of the game. There is no secret sauce. Some of those details are specific to your brewhouse and you'll only figure out the optimal technique through luck or experimentation. One brewer's optimal sulfate level for IPA might not be right anywhere else or for any other IPA.

If you are looking for a book on IPAs to tell you how to make Pliny or Heady Topper every time then this is not the right book. That book has not been written. However, if you are interested in better understanding IPA as a style and thinking beyond Citra and Mosaic then this book is good value.
June 21, 2015

Spontaneous Fermentation Project Part 16 -- Eighteen Months

I decided this month I'd give this beer a taste and make a definitive decision on what to do with this beer. It's been long enough that if I'm not seeing something worthwhile develop then that is unlikely to change and I should use the carboy space for something else. This sampling was not encouraging so I decided letting whatever I captured on that bitterly cold night just isn't getting it done and it's time to admit failure. However, rather than dump the beer I decided to send in reinforcements and see where they can take the beer. Ultimately I may end up dumping this beer but for the cost of a few pounds of grain and some propane I had fun with it and learned something new so even if this beer ends up flavoring my backyard it wasn't a complete failure.

The sample I drew this month was a natural progression of where the beer was last time I tasted it a few months ago. The ph is still around the mid-4 range and gravity is still right at 1.010. By those metrics and the traditional lambic grist, this is just a generic wheat beer with a weird flavor. The flavor is what made me decide to pull the trigger. It was about as close to pure apple juice flavor as one can get. It tasted exactly like generic apple juice with a little malt mixed in. It was sweet, bland and apple-y. If you have ever had one of those Woodchuck graffs it's similar to that but if you cut it with unfermented apple juice so it had less malt flavor. Just not something I want or need in any volume. Visually the beer is reasonably clear with a slight haze, similar to an unfiltered wheat beer. The islands of yeast are still there, always mocking me.

I suppose it's worth diagnosing where things went wrong with this beer. My mistake was going forward with a brew day on such a cold day. By the time the boil ended it was about 8pm and the temperature had dropped into the twenties with an aggressive wind. The combination of those two things might not have been a problem except five gallons of wort is too little volume to cool at a reasonable rate under those conditions, especially when I broke it up among several vessels. The wort was freezing at the surface in less than an hour which meant I was getting very little contact time for microorganisms to descend into the beer and what was getting there was either dying by freezing or not having an opportunity to start building colonies right away. These conditions resulted in little opportunity for a wide range and sufficient numbers of microorganisms necessary to make good beer. That would explain why I ended up with little to no lactic acid bacteria or oxidative yeast needed to create a wonderful sour beer. The absence of pellicle in turn meant no regulation of oxygen contact and the apple juice flavor is likely due to oxygen exposure.

Rather than dump the beer and start over I decided to culture some reinforcements and see what happens. I whipped up six ounces of 1.030 wort and dipped a store-bought nectarine in the wort. It destroys the localness of the beer but I am more interested in gaining a good mixture of microorganisms than terrior. I let the wort sit overnight in a mason jar and then sent the open jar outside for several hours in the morning. There was clearly activity by the smell and after a couple days the aroma of lactic acid was assertive. Several days later a thin ring on the inside of the jar at the surface suggested a krausen had come and gone and left a thin layer of creamy white yeast at the bottom of the jar. After seven days the jar's contents registered at 3.6 ph. I added another six ounces and let the jar sit for two more days. Another krausen ring appeared at the ph clocked in just below 3.6 ph. Today I unloaded the contents of the mason jar into the spontaneous beer.

I have hope the reinforcements will get in this beer and make something work. The bacteria are apparently aggressive so sourness will hopefully develop. I'd like something more than sour apple juice so I am also looking for some activity from brett and its friends to throw up a pellicle and go to work on the available flavor compounds. If I don't see a pellicle within the next few months then I will consider pitching some brett to help the beer along. Hopefully I won't have to mess with this beer anymore and I'll be able to bottle something decent next summer.

June 9, 2015

Sanskrit Saison with buckwheat, golden raisins, ginger and green cardamom

There was a time, shortly after I started brewing, where it seemed like all saison recipes had spices in them and more than likely the spices were coriander and orange peel like some misunderstood witbier. Then there was a wholesale rejection of the idea of using spices in saisons and with the return of popularity of saison/farmhouse/whatever the acceptability of spicing saison has returned. It's been a while since I have used any spices in my saisons; not because I oppose their use but because I just haven't felt the need in a long time. Over the past few months I have been mulling over the idea of taking a stab at playing with some spices in a saison and a trip to a local Indian grocer gave me the inspiration to go for it.

There's a small Indian grocery store close to my office owned by a couple who have run the store for a long time. They stock all sorts of spices and regional ingredients. They also have a halal butcher, which is the only place one can find good goat meat in the area. I guess if you follow halal then it's the only place to find any good meat in the area. Everything is incredibly cheap there and I have a pantry stuffed full of spices acquired there. I thought it would be interesting to spice a saison out of ingredients available at this shop.

My immediate thought was to scrap any spice combination that would resemble the chai masala spice blend commonly used in beer. I don't mind chai masala but I would rather select spices that will work with the dryness of saison and the citrus/fruit/spice/earthy character of the yeast. I also decided to avoid anything too gimmicky that would make for a beer with a reasonably probability of getting dumped, such as curry powder or curry leaves.

In the end I opted for:

  • Unmalted white wheat from Ukraine: I like adding wheat to saisons for some body and the store sold wheat so I thought it made sense to pick some up.
  • Buckwheat from Russia: I thought this was an interesting ingredient that would add some nutty and earthy notes to the yeast phenolics.
  • Ginger: Ginger is a basic ingredient in many Indian dishes and also has a long history of use in saisons so it was an easy starting point for spicing the saison. The spicy/sweet flavor works really well with citrus, which is perfect for the lemony notes of 3711.
  • Golden raisins: Golden raisins have a nice subtle honey flavor that also plays really well in saisons. I've seen plenty of commentary that raisins are easily overdone so they will go into the beer with serious restraint.
  • Green cardamom: Cardamom works well with almost anything as long as it is used in moderation. It's herbal, citrusy and slightly floral. That's all perfect to integrate into a saison. 
The combination of ingredients isn't terribly exotic but my goal is to brew a saison I'll enjoy drinking with subtle spicing effects rather than get bowled over by spices. If I like this beer then maybe I'll try my hand at a winter beer with other spices from the shop like cassia, star anise, mace and so forth.

Sanskrit Saison with wheat, buckwheat, ginger, golden raisins and green cardamom

Batch size: 3 gallons
Est. OG: 1.053
Est. FG: 1.010
Est. ABV: 5.7%
Est. IBU: 25
Est. SRM: 3.3

Grain Bill

83.3% 5 lb. German pils malt (2 SRM)
12.5% 12 oz. White wheat malt (1.7 SRM)
4.2% 4 oz. Buckwheat (2 SRM)

Mash & Sparge

Decoction mash
Infuse 12 qt at 156F for 146F rest for 40 minutes
Decoct 3 qt and boil for 160F rest for 30 minutes
Sparge with 2.68 gal of water at 180F

Water Profile: Bru'n Water Yellow Bitter

Ca: 52
Mg: 10
Na: 5
SO4: 115
Cl: 46
Bicarbonate: -92
PH: 5.3

Mash Additions

Gypsum 1.5g
Epsom salt 1.2g
Canning salt 0.2g
Calcium chloride 0.9g
Lactic acid 1.5ml

Sparge Additions

Gypsum 1.3g
Epsom salt 1.1g
Canning salt 0.1g
Calcium chloride 0.8g

Boil Schedule

90 minutes

0.30 oz. Belma [12.10%] at 90 min 21 IBU
0.10 oz. Belma [12.10%] at 20 min 4 IBU
12g golden raisins, chopped at 10 min 0 IBU
0.7g ginger at flameout
4g green cardamom at flameout


Ferment with 100ml slurry of 3711 at 78F

Brewday & Fermentation Notes

Brewed 5/31/15.

First runnings: 1.066
Pre-boil gravity: 1.041
Pre-boil volume: 5.1 gal
Mash efficiency: 91.7%

Post boil gravity: 1.055
Post boil volume: 3.5 gal
Efficiency: 86.6%

Gravity check 6/10/15: 1.008
Cardamom flavor is dominant. Complex and interesting but the cardamom probably needs some time to age out.

Bottled 6/14/15. Cardamom assertive but already mellowing out. Racked one gallon to jug and added Oud Beersel dregs.